Tuesday, January 20, 2015

La forma dell'acqua: Why I Abandoned it

I decided to abandon the popular Italian novel La forma dell'acqua (first novel in the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri) because it is too far from standard Italian to read comfortably, and because there is no value to a non-native speaker in learning the non-standard words.


How I Chose it

About a month ago, following my usual process for choosing a foreign novel to read, I made a list of Italian novels to consider. About a week ago, I asked my Italian teacher for some suggestions for novels suitable for a strong intermediate reader. He sent links to a few web sites that listed books that are popular in Italy at the moment. Camilleri was the only name to turn up on both lists.

I really like crime stories, and the Inspector Montalbano series sounded interesting. If any of the reviews complained about the unusual language in the books, I missed that entirely.

What happened when I tried to read it

From the very first page, I found myself looking up way too many words that didn't exist in the dictionary. This slowed me down a lot because I'd try switching dictionaries, then checking Wikipedia, and finally highlighting the word for later. Sometimes there would be two or three unknown words in a single sentence. Given the setting, I had expected to encounter a few Sicilian terms in the dialogue, but not in the narration. Regardless, I forged on to the end of the first chapter.

Even with all that trouble, I did get the gist of the story. A couple of garbage men doing their morning rounds and complaining about their bosses find the dead body of someone they know. They report it to the local police, commanded by Salvo Montalbano. In retrospect, I'm amazed I got that much out of it.

It's not just that it took a couple of hours to do this--it was painful. Still, figuring that perhaps there were only a few words I'd need to know for the rest of the book, I went back to the start and looked up the mystery words online. Or at least I tried to.

The first unknown term, cummigliava probably meant "accumulated," but Wordreference didn't have it, Linguee didn't have it. I consulted an online Sicilian-Italian dictionary, and that didn't have it either. Finally I did a Google search for it, and I found this article:

‘I am Montalbano/Montalbano sono’: Fluency and Cultural Difference in Translating Andrea Camilleri’s Fiction, by Saverio Tomaiuolo

There I learned that I'm not the only one who has trouble reading this author's work.

Why I abandoned it

The author has loaded it with words that he himself invented by merging words from the Sicilian dialect with standard Italian words. Apparently Italians find this entertaining--my Italian teacher told me that he's hugely popular over in Italy, and that you can figure out most of the words by doing Google searches on them because there are all sorts of web sites where people argue over what they're supposed to mean.

I actually considered that. After all, even time spent reading someone's Italian web page is time spent reading Italian, but what put me off the idea is the fact that I don't want to be memorizing a bunch of non-words. Not when there are so many real words I need to add to my Italian vocabulary.

So even though Italians love Camilleri's work, I think students of Italian need to stay away from it.


Jon Pagan said...

Thats so odd! The close I can think, would be fantasy series in english that invent words for their stories but that is very different.

What is next on your list for books to read Italian?

Greg Hullender said...

I'm looking at this one: Seta by Alessandro Baricco (2008). A very short (108 pages), very easy novel about a Frenchman in the 1860s who travels to dangerous places to try to save his silk business.

Davide said...

Yep, he's quite Tolkien-like :)

Andrea Collins said...

Yes, I'm finding La Forma dell'Acqua heavy going; but I've read it in English and seen it on TV so have a rough idea of the story. My main reason for choosing it was that I don't think the jokes actually translate well into English!

Charlie said...

One of the folks in my Gruppo di Lettura came up with this book as something to read and we started on it. Several people dropped out and, in fact, the originator and I are the only ones still going at it.

However, there's hope! I just found a resource - a dictionary of "Camilleri language." It's published by vigata.org, which is the "official" Camilleri fan club, and translates a large number of his special words to standard Italian. Still not a book for a beginner however.

Anyway, the dictionary is here: http://www.vigata.org/dizionario/camilleri_linguaggio.html

Carlos López Mölls said...

I think I have found the meaning of "cummigliava" on the English wiktionary.


It's a very comprehensive dictionary for virtually every important language in the world (including conlangs). Right now I am using it to get the pronunciation (IPA) of brazilian words (along with forvo), and their Etymology. As for the meaning and to see some usage of a word, sometimes I also go to the Portuguese Wiktionary (or to the corresponding wiktionary for words of another language). It's also really useful to know what languages a random word belongs to.